Arizona utilities can't use electricity generated by burning trash to meet their renewable energy requirements, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Crane McClennen rejected arguments by the Arizona Corporation Commission that it is entitled to consider power from incinerators burning waste the same as solar, wind and geothermal. McClennen said that's not what the commission's own rules state.
Wednesday's ruling most immediately affects plans by the Mohave Electric Cooperative to meet part of its renewable energy mandate through power generated from the proposed plant near Surprise. But unless overturned it also slams the door on any other utility trying the same thing.
McClennen's action, however, does have a loophole of sorts. It would appear to leave the door open for the utility regulators to amend their own rules to specifically include trash burning as a renewable resource.
But Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, which filed the lawsuit, said that would require the commissioners to make a conscious -- and public -- declaration that they consider trash burning environmentally advantageous.
Bahr pointed out that the panel had, in fact, considered including incineration in its original rules but rejected the idea. She said public pressure likely would preclude the commissioners from reversing course now.
"There is strong public support for solar and wind and the truly clean renewable energy resources,'' she said.
"And there is not strong support for trash incineration, especially in areas that already have significant air quality problems,'' Bahr continued, noting ongoing problems with Maricopa County consistently complying with federal pollution regulations.
Commission regulations require all utilities to obtain at least 15 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2025.
The concept, championed by former commissioner Kris Mayes, was based in part on the premise that Arizona needed a more diverse source of energy. Much of what is consumed now comes from coal and natural gas, with some utilities getting power from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, and some hydro power from dams.
Recognizing the higher cost of alternatives, commissioners also agreed to let utilities impose a surcharge on customers.
This plant was pushed by a company called Reclamation Power Group. Ron Blendu, one of the owners, told commissioners the 11 megawatt plant would get about 500 tons of trash per day, about 5 percent of what is generated in the Phoenix metro area.
It would sell the power to Mohave Electric. But the company needed the certification by the commission that it qualified as "renewable'' power to be able to charge the rates to justify the cost of the power plant.
Commissioners approved the request two years ago on a 3-2 party line vote, with the Republicans in support.
Bob Stump, chairman of the panel, defended the decision. He pointed out that even the federal Environmental Protection Administration classifies waste energy as renewable.
"What we're always interested in procuring at the commission is cost-effective renewable energy,'' he said. And Stump said that, unlike wind and solar, which are not constant sources of electrons, an incinerator is more akin to a round-the-clock coal or nuclear plant, heating water to make steam to drive generators.
"And, of course, if the choice is between landfilling the waste and converting it to energy, it made sense to us to convert it to energy,'' he said.
Bahr acknowledged the EPA rules. But she said that does not make the federal agency's views correct.
More to the point of the lawsuit, those federal rules do not override what Arizona regulators have defined as "renewable.''
McClennen agreed, saying that the state regulators exceeded their authority in declaring the incineration as renewable energy.
The judge also noted that the commissioners, in certifying the plan as renewable energy, concluded that 90 percent of what would be burned would be from "biogenic'' sources, meaning starting out its existence from plants, and therefore considered renewable. Evidence was presented that even the commission's own staffers concluded that no more than 75 percent would fit that definition, with the balance being various other items like plastics.
Stump said no decision has been made whether to appeal the ruling.